Arts: Bohemians revisited

Huge, melancholy, unfilmable: that's Anthony Powell's 'A Dance to the Music of Time'. Only, it starts on the box this week. David Runciman reports

There are two classics of mid-20th-century melancholia in English Literature. One, Brideshead Revisited, a book of 340-odd pages, became a television series lasting 11 hours. The other, A Dance to the Music of Time, reaches the small screen this week. Channel 4's adaptation runs for only eight hours; yet the work on which it is based extends across more than 2,000 pages of text, written over 24 years (1951-75). In fact, Anthony Powell's sequence of 12 novels about English life from the Twenties to the Seventies is rather longer than War and Peace, with at least as great a cast of individually drawn characters (there are getting on for 500 of them). And although not quite on the scale of Tolstoy's epic, Powell's Dance takes these characters through a similarly eventful journey, from the frivolities of peacetime through the privations of total war and back again, all the time managing to report on their doings with a detached and leisurely air. It is for precisely this reason that A Dance to the Music of Time has often appeared to stand alongside War and Peace as one of the great unfilmable works of fiction.

But appearances can be deceptive. Although attempts have been made to dramatise Powell's books before (by Dennis Potter among others), they have tended to fall down on the seeming impossibility of reconciling Powell's authorial voice - relaxed and resigned - with the hectic and sometimes hysterical pace at which things happen to the people he is writing about. But just because Powell is no Tolstoy, there is no real need to try to reconstruct with absolute fidelity his take on events. What A Dance to the Music of Time offers is not some overarching vision, but a wonderfully varied series of vignettes. The motifs that run through the books, including the central motif of its title, are drawn not from philosophy, but from the visual arts. To get the books across successfully on the screen, all that is needed is to choose judiciously from the hundreds of moments that Powell freezes in time, the various steps of the dance.

This is what Hugh Whitemore, by choosing to adapt the books into four two-hour films, has done. Whitemore, who specialises in bringing to the screen the hidden depths of buttoned-up Englishmen (he was the scriptwriter of 84 Charing Cross Road and Franco Zeffirelli's recent Jane Eyre), breaks the action down into a series of choice encounters, in which the same characters circle relentlessly round Powell's alter ego, Nicholas Jenkins, played over the course of his long life by James Purefoy and John Standing. All the significant characters are there, but they are usually glimpsed only in passing, on the edge of apparently unconnected events. The flavour of each is conveyed in the fleeting attitudes they strike, and in the snatches of Powell's dialogue which have been faithfully reproduced. And it works, not least because the dialogue often gives a better sense of Powell's voice than the convoluted authorial monologues that sometimes precede it in the novels. The inner life of the narrator is dispensed with altogether.

The one thing Whitemore can't do is give the books more of a plot than they have on the page, no matter how much the action is condensed. A Dance to the Music of Time is not a conventional costume drama; perhaps to emphasise this, the first scene of nudity in the books, which comes towards the end of volume three, occurs 10 seconds into the televised version when Claire Skinner, as Jenkins's girlfriend, opens her very respectable front door with nothing on. But it is costume drama none the less, and as such it is bound to disappoint those who have set expectations of the genre. For while a great deal goes on, and although the costumes are wonderful, not a lot actually happens. The events which constitute the drama itself are pretty innocuous - a man has sugar poured over him at a party, a man gets drunk and has to be put to bed, a woman is sick into an urn at a funeral. There are marriages, divorces, births and deaths, but these punctuate the story at the same rhythm as the rest of the action. Familiar characters constantly reappear, older but not usually wiser. The wicked are not often punished. There are no happy endings.

Yet Channel 4 can take comfort from the fact that Pride and Prejudice was not the only historical drama to strike a chord in the last couple of years. The adaptation of A Dance to the Music of Time is less like Brideshead Revisited and more like Our Friends in the North - or South. It is played out against a similarly vast backdrop of historical events and, perhaps surprisingly, it has a similar theme, as various characters struggle to come to terms with the moral imperatives of socialism. Powell, who was famously the only Tory George Orwell could bring himself to like, is rather more diffident about this aspect of the political life than Peter Flannery was. But as a result, his version of events benefits from the one thing Our Friends in the North conspicuously lacked. It is very funny. It is, admittedly, humour of a rather familiar, Withnail-esque kind, a humour imbued with the spirit of former public schoolboys getting drunk and whispering to each other sotto voce, "Who is that extraordinary little man?" It's the humour of snobbery and humiliation. Yet in Powell's hands it is affectionate, while yet remaining genuinely cruel.

A Dance also benefits from the attentions of a stellar cast, drawn by the chance to make unfilmable literature look easy. Everywhere you look, a familiar face is turning in an exemplary cameo, from John Gielgud as

the narcissistic novelist St John Clarke, to Alan Bennett as the Oxford don "Sillers" Sillery, a man able to pull strings anywhere, from the Vatican to the TUC. Miranda Richardson slips into the role of Pamela Flitton, a psychotic nymphomaniac, while Paul Rhys is magnificent as the alcoholic Stringham, Jenkins's oldest friend.

But the star of the show, on screen as on the page, is Kenneth Widmerpool, played from the ages of 16 to 70 by Simon Russell Beale (currently turning in a pretty mean Iago in the National's new Othello). It is Widmerpool, first glimpsed lumbering through the mists at Eton, who comes in the end to dominate the dance. Vain, hideous and cruel, he is able to see off the more sexually successful of his school contemporaries, but nothing can spare him the agonies of his own love life. The scene in which he is forced to seek Jenkins's advice as to whether he should attempt "personal relations" with his rather more worldly fiancee before their wedding-night is one of the funniest in 20th-century literature, and Russell Beale does it full justice.

It remains to be seen whether A Dance to the Music of Time gives Channel 4 the sort of hit it may be hoping for as the station approaches its 15th anniversary. The locations - Eton, Oxford, Belgravia - are ideal. The interiors are lavish. But the failings of the book are hard to get away from on screen. Too many of the female characters appear merely as the agents of sexual retribution, while one irreproachable woman, the narrator's own wife (played first by Emma Fielding and then by Isobel Jenkins), is kept well away from all the nastiness. Her miscarriage, for example, is described only slightly less perfunctorily on screen than it is in the books. Moreover, there is nothing Whitemore can do about the fact that the first nine novels in the series are much better than the last three, at which point literary life comes to the fore and melodrama takes over.

Neither the era - the middle part of this century - or the setting - the upper fringes of English bohemia - are the ones that anyone hoping for a huge audience would choose. There are parties, there is sex, there are some lovely dinner jackets, but on the whole Powell's world can seem to be neither one thing nor the other, a bit dated for now, a bit dingy for then. And yet, A Dance succeeds in showing us a state of mind - observant, amused, mildly despairing, above all tinged with melancholy. Its era and its social setting have never been better done.

'A Dance to the Music of Time' (C4) begins on Thurs at 9pm. 'Brideshead Revisited' will be shown in its entirety at the NFT, SE1 (0171 928 3232), on Sun 12 Oct.

Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine